Tom Goldsmith: Faith communities must participate in social change

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Rev. Tom Goldsmith speaks as the First Unitarian Universalist Church celebrated their 125 year anniversary at the Marriott School of Dance, Sunday, February 28, 2016.

Freedom will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear…

Freedom is a strong seed


in a great need.

– Langston Hughes

As Black Lives Matter finds its voice to help mold and shape a new inclusive society, faith communities must find theirs in order to fully support the already forceful movement. We are currently witnesses to unprecedented historic change, and predominantly white congregations must add their support to a movement that relies on the moral assertions of religious institutions.

Our experience today, following the brutal murder of George Floyd, takes us beyond the plaintiff cries for justice voiced by the old prophets. Their thunderous cries for compassion, equity, and righteousness were lone voices in the wilderness, easily forsaken in real life preoccupations with greed and entitlement.

But today’s stunning movement, unparalleled in incorporating diverse voices into its mission to end wealth and health disparities in society, has stepped out of the wilderness and is making real change.

The movement has already transformed the behavior and funding of police, forced a serious re-examination of the racial makeup in boardrooms across the country, and has educated white Americans about the lasting scars of slavery. Fear in the daily lives of Black citizens remains every bit as real today as it was on the plantation.

Why are we not hearing about predominantly white houses of worship stepping up, being present and working to seize this transformative moment in time? Repairing the world well defines the mission of all religions. In the face of suffering and oppression, this mission points certainly to rebuilding a world on a foundation of justice. Gradualism is not in the prophetic lexicon.

As Langston Hughes made transparently obvious, freedom never arrives through compromise and fear. No scriptural teaching upholds bargaining with justice or freedom. We are to work hard to make it happen; our ethical mandate is to break the shackles of oppression. So why the timid approach by faith communities, just as tangible change is taking shape?

Perhaps many faith communities rely too heavily on justice being a vague concept, never having been called upon so overtly before to participate in revolutionary change. But in a changing America, the strong seed planted in a great need has finally taken root, and it will need faith communities to till the soil.

Isn’t it about time that faith communities begin reimagining the divine, not as a supernatural power outside history that will save us, rescue us, but as a partner in healing the world. Is the religious community primarily concerned with the salvation of a select few, or ought it view salvation as a gift to everyone. All people are deserving of rescue, and it’s the work of faith communities to complete that mission.

All faiths are challenged today to come to terms with the human capacity for violence. Violence is sown in the institution of slavery, lynching, incarceration, voter suppression, and systemic racism. The history of such brutal violence extending to this point in time is mind numbing. But faith communities, if they are worthy of their heritage, must face our human capacity for evil.

Proof of human suffering comes easily: slavery, Holocaust, genocide, Hiroshima, 9/11, police brutality. The time for us is now, to face the pain, repair what is broken, and invoke the redemptive powers of love and inclusion.

Faith communities need to be present in this extraordinary time in history, by serving as witnesses to suffering. They must be healers in mending a broken system that has oppressed people of color with impunity. They can be architects in building reform that will allow justice to irrigate a parched land.

Houses of worship are powerful communities. If you have any doubt, look at their respective mission statements, which offer only slight variations on transforming us to become better. Take a look at their mailing lists, not only the sheer numbers, but also their access to community leaders. And when you consider the lofty and respected status afforded to all houses of worship, their influence on bringing about change is immeasurable.

Predominantly white congregations will need to learn how best to serve, not lead the new awakening of America. Black Lives Matter has effective leadership and doesn’t need white clergy to show the way. Yet faith communities can speak with moral authority, and become important foot soldiers in healing a broken nation.

Tom Goldsmith Senior Minister First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

Rev. Tom Goldsmith is senior minister at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City.